Friday, April 6, 2012

Damsels In Distress

Delicate Thinking Flowers, Revolting Against Male Dolts

Carrie MacLemore as Heather, Greta Gerwig (center) as Violet and Megalyn Echikunwoke as Rose in Whit Stillman's "Damsels In Distress". 
Sony Pictures Classics


Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Friday, April 6
, 2012

Effervescent, witty and smart, "Damsels In Distress" is easily Whit Stillman's warmest and most accessible work, a sunny, sparkling treatise of music, dance, comedy and conversation pieces.  "Damsels In Distress", Mr. Stillman's first film in 14 years, opened today in New York City and Los Angeles.  (The film expands to additional U.S. cities next weekend.)

The damsels are a quartet named after flowers: Violet (Greta Gerwig), who heads a suicide prevention center on the college campus of Seven Oaks in the New York area.  She's assisted by trusted confidante Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke), Lily (Analeigh Tipton) and Heather (Carrie MacLemore), erudite types with first-class diction who muse about self-identity, love, men and the plurality of the word "doofus".  Their plan is to revolutionize and freshen -- rather, fumigate -- the male-dominated atmosphere at Seven Oaks.  This will be a major challenge, of course, which Mr. Stillman's odyssey-like films revel in in a soap-opera manner.  (The challenge the ladies of "Damsels" commit to is itself a playful commentary on the director's own male-heavy figures in some of his prior big-screen landscapes.)

Violet, a prim 1950s throwback who has the power to infect the world around her in both a pleasant and confounding way, is in a self-ascribed "tailspin" after witnessing a betrayal.  She and her trio spend time pontificating about the doltish men of Seven Oaks, including its newspaper editor, who mocks the prevention center's tap-dancing therapy.  Mr. Stillman's films have all featured dance but in "Damsels" dance is a key ingredient to liberation from stupidity and depression.  The Oaks campus women are depressed and the men are foolish, but the director makes the sly, satirical point that the species of man is destined to evolve even as its male side retards itself, advancing by making pint-sized revelations.  Such sparse, isolating discoveries and contrasts illustrate the vast gulf in the thought processes of men and women, and Mr. Stillman's conversational yet refined script sharply puts this gulf into often hilarious focus.

The dance numbers of the film include Astaire and Rogers-like choreography accompanying Gershwin's "Things Are Looking Up", a resplendent, light-hearted treat of gaiety and merriment.  These five minutes of joy (and various other scenes) are a perfect break from some of the self-involved banter and grim themes of suicide and abandonment that dilute the freshness of some scenes.  Other dances on display include the Sambola!, complete with its own set of onscreen instructions.  All of it is pure fun.  "Damsels" is the first of Mr. Stillman's films (his last, in 1998, was "The Last Days Of Disco") to truly open up and emerge from the typically staid, stuffy and aristocratic atmospheres the director has previously crafted ("Metropolitan").  "Damsels In Distress", an enjoyable, intellectually vivacious and sensory comic book frolic, breathes freely and flourishes so abundantly.

At every turn "Damsels" is given to flights of whimsy, and its philosophizing, angst-ridden characters-in-cartoonish-crisis are firmly rooted in the imprint of Woody Allen, one of Mr. Stillman's biggest influences.  In contrast to Mr. Allen's occasionally somber neurotic comedy, the glowing "Damsels" bursts with a life, color and energy that won me over.  The music is infectious, as are these lovable lasses and logic-challenged fellows in search of meaning.  The truth of Mr. Stillman's "Damsels" is that all of its liars and self-deniers are caught in helpless situations mainly of their own making.  They articulate their circumstances as if trapped inside Jane Austen or William Shakespeare.  The Seven Oaksers are boxed in by their predicaments but irony and duplicity are the delightful tonics flavoring and making comical what would in contemporary society be viewed as a serious topic: suicides on college campuses.

The self-important men and women of Seven Oaks have the platform of the campus (and anyone else caring enough to listen, for school administrators are AWOL here) to shake their maladies and insecurities from their systems -- even if it means jumping from the first elevated floor of one of the study halls to do so.  With its droll dialogue, wicked humor, etymological parsing, malapropisms and misunderstandings, "Damsels In Distress" celebrates expressionism, from its smallest to its largest canvases, however idiosyncratic or operatic, and the effortlessness of its total journey makes it a magical, sweet and glorious experience.

The film's most arresting figure is the thoughtful, beautiful Rose, who has the most lucid and cynical diagnosis of all, employed with her signature haughty upper-class English accent and dull enunciation of the word operator ("oper-ay-tour", she says).  I was intrigued and transfixed by Ms. Echikunwoke, an intelligent, attractive and poised performer, who as Rose is Mr. Stillman's voice of reason among a Greek chorus.  Her insights are doled out in select but punctual doses.  I wish Rose had been more of the film's center than the wonderfully subtle and wry Violet, played with great dry understatement by Greta Gerwig.  Mr. Echikunwoke's last name means "leader of men", and I would have liked to see her lead these lunkheaded male types to freedom from self-ridicule.

Speaking of the men: many are existentially and conceptually challenged.  When the women point out the truth in plain everyday observations, the men, whom are soft and tender-hearted in reality, disbelieve, sincerely no less.  Some of them -- notably Thor, played comically by Billy Magnussen -- are the strongest self-affirmers of their own stupidity.  When the men celebrate their foolishness as if marinating in triumphant eureka-dom, "Damsels" is at or near its very best.  The film cheerleads its gleeful surface of nostalgia, discourse and identity crises while unmasking a battle-of-the-sexes featuring funny takes on misconceptions and preconceived notions about the way the sexes behave as desirous sexual beings.  One man, Frank (Ryan Metcalf) repeats an enunciation of his own to describe a particular woman, doing so in a bombastic, revelatory way that is funny as much as it is offensive.  The actors all do well in this theatrical extravaganza, completely unselfconscious in their self-consciousness.

There's a male boorishness reminiscent of "Animal House" here that is more affectionate and cute than noisy and unruly.  Above all, "Damsels In Distress" is an anthropological study and wisely-observed cultural history of how the physicalities of dainty women and clumsy men end up merging, whether through dance (as foreplay) or sex (as punctuation).  It's a happy, giddily appealing marriage, at least for as long as Mr. Stillman sustains it.

With: Adam Brody, Caitlin Fitzgerald, Hugo Becker, Jermaine Crawford, Taylor Nichols, Aubrey Plaza, Zach Woods, Carolyn Farina.

"Damsels In Distress" is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association Of America for mature thematic content including some sexual material.  The film's running time is one hour and 39 minutes.

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